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A Separate Peace is a novel that is driven by two wars: the world war raging in Europe and the personal war raging in Gene Forrester. Gene is forced to grow up because of both of these wars; throughout the book he attempts to understand his own personal world and the larger world around him. The novel is really the story of his coming of age and maturing.
Gene Forrester is both the protagonist and the narrator of the novel. The book is told from his first person point of view as a flashback. He returns to his alma mater, Devon School, about fifteen years after he left it. He has come back to find and come to grips with two important places on campus: the First Building and a tree that hung out over the Devon River. The flashback goes back to the time when Gene was sixteen years old and an Upper Middler at Devon.
In the beginning of the book, Gene is portrayed as an intelligent student and a thinker, who considers a situation from all sides before making a decision. He is also a person who strictly conforms to rules and regulations; he always obeys his teachers, studies hard, never misses a class, and makes good grades. He does not really enjoy sports, for he is not a good athlete.
Gene's roommate and best friend at Devon is Finny, who has a completely opposite personality from Gene. He always acts spontaneously and on blind impulse, never thinking about the rules or the consequences. He is also a poor student, for he does not devote himself to his studies. He would rather be playing sports, since he is the best athlete on campus.
During their days at Devon, Gene begins to adore and worship Finny as a super hero and individualist. He feels his roommate can handle any situation and charm any adult, including the teachers. As a result, Gene tries to emulate him; he also lets himself be controlled by him. In the process, Gene grows jealous of his friend. He begins to hope that Finny will get caught and punished for one of his many antics. He wants Finny to be forced down to his level so that he can compete with him, not just lose to him.
Gene tries to please Finny although he knows that by doing so he is acting against every instinct of his nature. In order to keep up with Finny, he jumps from the tree into the river, a daring feat, even though he is scared to death. He also allows Finny to take him away from his studies, which are very important to Gene. When Finny probably saves his life by preventing him from falling from the tree, he knows that he should be grateful, but he rationalizes by saying he would not have been up in the tree if not for Finny. He concludes that he need not feel any gratitude towards his roommate.
Because everything seems to come so easily and naturally to Finny, especially his athletic prowess, Gene grows insanely jealous of him. The jealousy is carefully hidden inside until he can stand it no more. He then causes Finny to fall out of the tree, crippling him for life. By hurting him, Gene could bring him down to his level. After the accident, Gene even sees himself as Finny. He dresses in his roommate's clothes and says, "I was Phineas, Phineas to the life." He also becomes the crippled Finny, refusing to participate in sports, since Finny cannot do it.
After the accident, Gene is riddled with guilt and shame. During summer vacation, he decides he must confess that he has caused the accident to Finny. He goes to his home, where he is recuperating, and tries to tell Finny that he has bounced him out of the tree. Finny refuses to believe the story, for he trusts Gene as his best friend in life. When Finny returns to Devon, he tells Gene that he is going prepare him for the next Olympics. The agreement is that Finny will coach Gene in sports, and Gene will coach Finny in his studies.
During the winter, Gene participates in a winter carnival that Finny has organized. He easily wins all of the sporting events, proving that Finny's efforts have paid off. But Gene is still not at peace with himself. Like the war that is raging in Europe, he has an internal war, driven by guilt and shame, raging inside himself. When Leper sends Gene a telegram begging him to come and see him, Gene sees firsthand what internal conflict can do to a person. Unable to handle fighting in the war, Leper has gone crazy. When he describes himself as a "psycho," Gene is seized with fear because he is afraid that this will also happen to him. When Leper suggests that Gene has caused Finny to fall from the tree, Gene's fear intensifies. He again reacts with brutality, kicking the chair from underneath Leper and causing him to fall. Gene obviously feels threatened that somebody else knows the truth about what he has done to Finny.
Returning from Leper's house, Gene joins in a student snowball fight organized by Finny. As they playfully wage a war, far removed from the real world war that haunts them, Gene tries to kid himself into believing that he is at peace with himself. He genuinely believes that there is no longer a conflict between him and Finny, largely because Finny has been brought down to his level; additionally, Finny has confessed his absolute faith and trust in Gene.
Brinker, one of the students, senses that Gene is living a lie. Suspecting that he is responsible for Finny's accident, he organizes a student trial in the First Building. Finny and Gene are both brought in for questioning. Finny, still unable to face the truth of what has really happened in the accident, tells Brinker that he lost his balance and fell out of the tree. Gene, afraid to tell the truth in front of his peers, says he has been on the ground during the accident. Leper, however, is called in to testify. He states that on the night of the accident he saw two figures in the tree, one out on a limb and one near the trunk. When the lower moved, the figure on the branch fell. Forced to face the truth, Finny is shocked and crushed. With tears flowing from his eyes, he runs from the room and trips on the steps. Gene is so ashamed at what he has done and what he has caused that he cannot even help to carry Finny to the infirmary.
When Gene is finally courageous enough to enter Finny's room, his friend turns on him. With anger, Finny asks if Gene has come to break another part of his body. Gene reminds him that he had tried to tell Finny the truth about the accident, but was always silenced. Realizing that his presence causes pain, Gene leaves. The next morning he returns with Finny's clothes and toiletries, as the doctor has requested. Finny has regained his composure and tells his friend about the hurt he feels about not being able to help in the war effort. Gene tries to cheer him by making a joke. When he departs, Gene feels better about Finny and their relationship.
The doctor tells Gene that he can return at five o'clock in the evening to see his friend after his leg has been set. When Gene comes to the infirmary after his classes, he learns that Finny has passed away. Gene is too shocked to even shed tears. He feels indirectly responsible for causing Finny's death; he also feels like a part of himself has died with the passing of his friend.
Gene joins the Navy and fights in the war, but his heart is not in it. He cannot even think about killing a person, even the enemy. He has fought one war, his own personal battle and that war ended with a horrible death; it is enough for a lifetime. Gene proves that he has great difficulty getting over the loss of Finny. After fifteen years, he has come back to Devon to come to terms with two frightening places: the First Building and the tree that hangs over the river.